The Surprisingly Similar Case of Shopping, Then and Now

At this time of year, when shopping becomes a constant (and sometimes stressful) preoccupation, it’s easy to forget that for many people it’s a pleasurable pastime. Not just because of what you actually buy, but also because of the searching, comparing, matching, and imagining that all make up the act of shopping. As it turns out, the attractiveness of shopping as entertainment is nothing new. So as you search for your last-minute Christmas gifts, here are some items from the collections to get you in the mood.

shoe shoppingLet’s start with clothes. Men like to grumble about women’s love of shoes and accessories—purses, jewelry, gloves, scarfs, etc. Just what is it about these items that is so attractive to women, they ask? Although we may not be able to answer this question, evidence from the archives suggests that women have long found shopping for these things particularly enjoyable. Take, for example, the 1849 image of women shoe shopping above. Five adult women and one young girl are each in the process of finding that perfect shoe. Of the five faces we can see, all have contented smiles—even the shop-girl kneeling to help the woman in the center looks to be pleasantly occupied. The woman on the far right is holding out her foot for admiration, while the young girl in front of her excitedly tries to pull on a shoe. Although women loving shoes is a stereotype, it is apparently one based somewhat in truth. (I’m guilty of it myself.) And it can start young; in Gap just the other day, I saw a girl about the same age as the one in the image in the same exact pose. I also have a one-year-old goddaughter who can be bribed by telling her you will put on a pair of her favorite shoes for her.

You may also notice that four of the women in the image are wearing fashionable bonnets. A new bonnet at that time would have been about equivalent to a new purse now. Women would have bought 383893_0001those bonnets from a milliner, or a tradesperson who specialized in hat and bonnet making. This trade card for Madame Walsh, Fashionable Millinery and Dress Making, shows a well-dressed woman with her two young girls looking at bonnets with the milliner, who is also a woman. As you’ll notice, the milliner herself is also well-dressed—dressmakers and tailors would often wear their own wares as a way of advertisement.

weekly rakeWhile the trade card is geared toward the shop’s female customers, the popularity of hat shops was used in other popular culture of the time aimed at men. In an 1842 issue of the New York racy newspaper The Weekly Rake, the image seen to the left accompanied an article advising its male readers to hang out near hat shop windows as a way to meet women. While the man under the grate took things a bit too literally, the existence of such an article and image imply that women’s love of hats and window shopping were well known.

Lest we think that only women have the shopping bug, below is an 1865 advertisement for a men’s clothing store in Boston called Macullar, Williams & Parker. According to the ad, they sold “fine clothing to order and for the wholesale and retail trade,” carrying “fine clothing and mens furnishing goods…fine woolens and tailor trimmings.” A fashionable couple can be seen window shopping in front of the store, and both men and women mens clothing storeare entering the building. Then as now, it seems, men were believed to need some help in the clothing department.

If window and accessory shopping were popular activities in the nineteenth century, there is also evidence that the idea of “retail therapy” was not unknown. On April 25, 1861, about a week and a half after the outbreak of the Civil War, Caroline Barrett White, a staunchly antislavery upper-middle-class housewife from Brookline, Mass., recorded her early war efforts in her diary: “Made the Soldiers handkerchiefs today and carried them to the hall – Went into town this P. M. with Frank to get bonnet fixings – we also purchased some patriotic streamers to decorate curtains with.” Here, shopping for those all-important bonnet trimmings is coupled with a more patriotic kind of shopping.  Over the next few days she records trimming her bonnet and “making some decorations of the national colors,” which, when hung in the parlor, she writes, “they are pretty I think.” Shopping, home decorating, and making things look nice have become a way to deal with the beginning of a tragedy that, though they don’t know it, will continue for the next four years.

white april 1861

A page from White’s diary including the April 25, 1861 entry

Over the course of those years, White writes both jubilantly and heart-wrenchingly, depending on the war news. On September 3, 1862, as the war is starting to look very poorly for the Union, she writes the following:

Lovely cool day – I went to Boston this morning – did some shopping – could not find what was very satisfactory to me – but it does not matter – It seems to me nothing matters now – I feel sad, sad & discouraged – the news from our armies is of the saddest – dying, dying, dying poor brave soldiers!  I do not know but it is the worst to be desired however – to die, rather than live to be disgraced – Oh God! Hasten the right.

Brooklyn Sanitary FairSuddenly something that she had once found pleasurable and productive, and may even have hoped to help cheer her this day, now seemed meaningless. In reality, however, shopping often had a lot of meaning during the Civil War, particularly during Sanitary Commission fairs and other bazaars that were intended to raise money for the war effort. These functions, planned mostly by the women on the home front, sold goods and offered entertainment to fundraise and provide a bit of a respite from the harsh realities of the war. The image to the left depicts a Sanitary fair in Brooklyn in 1864. Decked in patriotic decorations, the hall is populated by home goods and women, many in their dark mourning clothes. Most of the few men visible are in uniform, probably on leave from the front.

While using shopping as a distraction from the horrors of war is the extreme, the idea of “retail therapy” is a common one today. Here at AAS, we would suggest heading to a bookstore to browse the shelves. (This is also a great break from other Christmas shopping you may be doing.) The detail below from a 1789 engraved receipt from the Society’s ephemera collection shows the interior of Ebenezer Larkin’s bookstore on Cornhill in Boston. You can see a man and a woman browsing in a room lined with shelves full of books and stacked with ink pots. In many ways it doesn’t look so different from bookstores today, and would have offered book lovers similar pleasures.

LarkinBIB380994-page-001So if you find yourself tired of tracking down the perfect present or standing in lines, just remember: shopping has been viewed as a pleasurable activity and effective distraction for centuries. Chances are that enjoyment will return for you as well. Eventually.

1 thought on “The Surprisingly Similar Case of Shopping, Then and Now

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